By Margaret Summers
This Veterans Day week, I’ve been remembering my first impressions of civil rights leader, death penalty abolitionist, and Korean War veteran, the late Dr. Mario Guerra Obledo. He was courtly. Reserved. Quiet. Polite. Respectful. I don’t remember his exact height, but to me he stood far above everyone around him.
One of 12 children born to Mexican immigrants in San Antonio, Texas, Dr. Obledo enlisted in the Navy in 1951, serving on a ship in radar technology. After the war, Dr. Obledo went back to his home state. He earned his undergraduate degree in pharmacy from the University of Texas in Austin, and later, his law degree from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio.
Like many veterans of color, Dr. Obledo returned from fighting a war for democracy and freedom in another country to find that such rights and freedoms were not always upheld for people of color in the United States. Pete Tijerina, another Latino war veteran, returned from combat with an idea to start a civil rights organization in support of Latinos. He met Dr. Obledo at a social function. With help from a $2.2 million dollar Ford Foundation grant and assistance from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the two veterans founded MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. MALDEF launched Dr. Obledo’s civil rights activism.
Years later, when I met Dr. Obledo in the mid-1980s, he was the President of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the nation’s oldest and largest Latino civil rights organization. I was a reporter, covering Congress for a local Washington, D.C. radio station. I interviewed him during that period after his news conferences or his testimony before Congressional hearings concerning racism against Latinos or U.S. immigration policy reform.
I wasn’t involved in the death penalty abolition movement yet, so I had no idea that Dr. Obledo was an abolitionist. He worked diligently to end the death penalty in California, where the National Coalition of Hispanic Organizations, which he headed and co-founded, is based, and in other states where it is still practiced.
Ten years ago, in his capacity as the President of the Coalition, Dr. Obledo signed an open letter to President Clinton, calling for a moratorium on federal executions. Other signers included leaders of the ACLU, NAACP, the National Organization for Women, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. The December 4, 2000 letter was a response to a Department of Justice survey of the federal death penalty authorization process. The survey revealed that, of the federal capital defendants against whom the Attorney General authorized seeking the death penalty, 69% were Hispanic and African American (18% and 51% respectively), while only 25% were white.
“We are aware of your support for the death penalty under some circumstances and we are not asking that you change your long-held position,” the letter read in part. “We are asking only that you prevent an unconscionable event in American history — executing individuals while the government is still determining whether gross unfairness has led to their death sentences.
In 2006, Dr. Obledo served on the advisory board of the American Bar Association Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project, which examined whether the death penalty was administered fairly and with due process. To the extent flaws were identified in states’ death penalty systems, states could use the Project’s findings in reforming their systems, impose moratoriums, and/or launch more comprehensive self-examinations of death penalty-related laws and processes. The Project examined death penalty systems in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.
While on the advisory board, Dr. Obledo illustrated how racial and economic disparities in the application of death sentences stem from years of racial and economic discrimination. “I think they should do away with the death penalty,” he said. “Most people convicted are minorities. People of color, or minorities. Only the poor people get executed. The people with money never get executed. That’s why the system should be changed. You would make sure no injustice would occur.”
As is the case with African Americans, Latinos are often disproportionately represented on death row. Approximately 11% of death row prisoners nationally are Latino, while Latinos comprise 15% of the U.S. population. In California, the percentage of Latinos sentenced to death and incarcerated on death row is increasing. According to a report by ACLU of Northern California, “Death in Decline 2009” Latinos comprised 50% of new death sentences in 2007, 38% of death sentences in 2008, and 31% of death sentences in 2009. There is no documented information regarding what is behind these troubling statistics. However, the report notes that the lack of Latinos on California’s juries and the sentencing decisions made by California’s District Attorneys might be among the driving factors.
Dr. Obledo’s contributions to death penalty abolition and civil rights were many. Dr. Obledo died suddenly this August after a heart attack at age 78. While others undoubtedly remember and laud Dr. Obledo for his civil rights activism in LULAC, MALDEF and the National Coalition of Hispanic Organizations, I will always remember, and appreciate, his having devoted a portion of his busy life trying to end the barbaric, racially and economically biased and ineffective crime-fighting tool that is capital punishment.
Margaret Summers is the Director of Communications for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.